I’ve been working on a blog post for weeks. My last original blog post (I’ve updated several but just can’t seem to get a NEW post ready to publish) was posted Sept. 19. As the month of October drew to a close my sense of panic increased. It is a self-imposed rule I know, but I really hate the idea of not publishing a new blog post at least once a month. Am I even a writer if I can’t manage to clear that low bar?
There are lots of reasons why I couldn’t manage a blog post. October is a busy month on both the academic and writing project calendars and the psychological weight of political and economic news cannot be dismissed. Mix in the rising wave of various illnesses sweeping students, friends, and family members out of circulation and constantly threatening my own well being and it all sounds terrible. And I forgot to include in my writing ambitions the simple fact that we are facing all these challenges (and more) under the additional weight of pandemic trauma. In brief, I forgot to give myself grace. And that is when my struggle with a topic for a blog post was resolved because this is a conversation I have all the time with my writing students and frequently with writing teachers. What do you do when the writer is so overwhelmed by life that they simply cannot make themselves complete the assigned writing task?
I am a writing evangelist. I believe in the power of writing to change us personally and to change the world. As a result, my writing classes have always included a large amount of time spent writing – specifically low-stakes writing designed to generate ideas and start possible writing projects. I have had a long love affair with 6-word stories that continues to this day and for several years my students have created snaps (or snapshots) of their thinking (often using 6-word stories). But the most powerful tool in my teacher kit is the the writing marathon. For the past two years (because pandemic trauma has broken us and yet the machinery of pandemic education continues to grind on), my classes have been built around the writing marathon model and leaned heavily into poetry to inspire our writing and thinking. You can find many examples of how I spark my students’ writing on DeannaMascle.com and specifically see how I structured one unit’s writing invitations for my This I Believe: American Creed unit. Sometimes the only solution to a writing slump or block is more writing.
Of course, for some writers, the struggle is not a lack of ideas, but perhaps too many ideas. I know this is usually my personal challenge as a writer. I have a lot of things to say about a lot of things and can quickly become overwhelmed. Many times I have students just cry out for me to pick a topic for them to write about. I sympathize, but that’s not how it works in my classroom. I am in the business of fostering the growth and development of writers and so they need to learn how to overcome this challenge. One of the ways I support writers through this challenge is to break the larger project into smaller chunks. When we are writing narratives then I will direct our writing with invitations intended to locate some personal anecdotes to illustrate the claim my students want to argue in their narrative. When we are writing rhetorical analysis essays then we practice the essential building blocks before students construct their own edifice. For our multi-genre essays my students have spent the past three weeks creating artifacts (inspired by the definition “Anything created by humans which gives information about the culture of its creator and users”). These artifacts have included microstories and small poems as well as playlists, maps, journal entries, social media posts, and vision boards inspired by the writing we do in class. Next week when we begin the process of building those multi-genre essays students will have 3-6 artifacts completed to begin that construction process. I prefer to help students chunk their projects from the middle out and then showing them how those chunks can become a cohesive whole. Sometimes the way to write yourself out of a slump is to focus on little pieces and let the big picture be a future-you problem.
Sometimes it is not about the lack of ideas or even the lack of building materials for the current project. Sometimes your brain just won’t get out of your way. This solution is about focusing or reframing or shifting topics until you find the idea that both captures your interest and fits your current capacity. I have a long list of blog post drafts. Some of those posts may never be written. Some of those posts (like this one) may rise from purgatory to be completed or reinvented. This is why I spend so much time writing with my students – or at least one of the reasons. The more ideas and starts that exist in a writer’s notebook and head then the writer faces much better odds that one of those sparks will catch fire long enough to become a completed piece of writing. But here be dragons as well. Sea monsters swim in these waters ready to wreck the unwary. The blog post I originally intended to write for this month was one of those monsters. It certainly has the potential to be a great post and it was a topic important to me, but I simply did not have the capacity to write that post at this time. Fortunately for me I have that long list of drafts and one of the titles (“Writing Practice” which was inspired by this blog post) became the post you are currently reading. Sometimes we just need to reframe or replace an idea to find the sweet spot where we can move forward with our writing. Sometimes teaching writing is a lot more like coaching or therapy and you need talk a writer out of a slump. What matters the most is that the writer writes and it is our task as writing teachers to support that practice. I know that I am a much happier writer now that I am finally able to hit “publish” on this blog post – even if it is not the blog post I originally intended to write.
What are your strategies for supporting writers who are so overwhelmed by life that they simply cannot make themselves complete the assigned writing task? What do you do as an overwhelmed writer?
2 thoughts on “Low-Stakes Writing Practice: Snaps and Artifacts”
I really loved your blog post. I am currently a student teacher in a twelfth grade ELA classroom through a program with the University of Michigan. I want to start implementing regular writing practices with the students in the form of bell-work. I hadn’t heard of six-word stories before this post, but after doing a little digging I think that they would serve a great purpose for bell-work. The idea of having students be deliberate over the words that they choose, and trying to fit as much meaning into such a small number of words is amazing.
The other benefit of using a six-word story is that you can give students a prompt that relates to the theme of that day’s lesson. Doing this can also prime the students’ minds to be thinking about the texts or concepts that you will be asking them to think about the rest of the class period or unit.
I was wondering if there were any other short writing practices that you, an expert teacher, might suggest using as bell-work, I want to have a number of these activities so that my students are not forced to engage with similar types of writing each day. Thank you again for the post, I really enjoyed it.
Sounds like you are off to a great start and asking the right questions. I think my blog post Bring The Power: Start Off Write might offer you some more inspiration. My current bell ringer strategy is to start with this simple check in writing prompt: I am a writer from…. This allows me to collect a lot of information about the general status of the class community and has really brought our community together as we share our joys and troubles. It is a nice bridge into the day – which involves a much more directed writing invitation.